Guest Blog: The Belief Gap

by Maria Graver

Maria Graver was born and raised on Chicago’s south side and currently spends her days with fifth graders in Edina, Minnesota. Ms. Graver is the mother of two young children and a proud mestiza.

I have been reading to my children since before they were born, stroking my burgeoning belly and sharing both poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the first shade my daughter ever felt was that of a picture book, held overhead, as we sat outside together. Sure, I enjoy reading. Yet, that’s not the full story here. The full story goes more like this: Having grown up in my own brown body, I have come to know that – in order to be perceived as intelligent – people of color have to be noticeably brighter than our white peers, and we have to be this way nearly all of the time. Otherwise, our flashes of intelligence can be explained away by fluke or circumstance – neatly rolled up and pushed into the corners of multigenerational white American consciousness – to make room for the barrage of media-generated stereotypes insisting that people of color are…criminal, oversexed, violent, deviant, unclean, drug-selling, drug-using, alcoholic, bilking the welfare system…I could go on, but I’m sure you can see where I’m headed.

I read to my children in the hopes that they will never be incorrectly classified, so that the light of their intellect shines brightly enough to stun their teachers, rendering them temporarily unable to remember all of the derogatory racist drivel with which Americans are overtly and covertly inundated. Their brilliance has to eclipse the belief gap.

By my estimation, the belief gap is the most detrimental facet of our nation’s racial achievement gap. On the off chance that the belief gap is a new consideration for you, let me flesh it out a little bit. The belief gap is characterized by society’s lack of faith in the intellectual abilities of people of color. Now, before you head off, content that the aforementioned lack of faith isn’t possibly something that you could have internalized, let’s ponder recent American history. Certainly, we have all been saddened and horrified by events in Ferguson and Cleveland, and rightly so. I wonder, though, how many of us have been surprised?

I wasn’t.

If there’s one thing that I know about my perceived place in the American social hierarchy, it’s that I am both distasteful and disposable…and, guess what, this is how we have all been taught – both consciously and subconsciously – to regard our children of color, as well.

So, I ask you, how do you think this informs our nation’s beliefs about the intellectual competencies of people of color?

How might it inform your own beliefs?


At HCG, we are honored to be part a community of thoughtful, committed and courageous educators, organizers and thinkers. As our community continues to grow, we’re also honored to share guest blog posts from our friends and colleagues in this work.

The Need For An Amend

I was on the phone the other day with someone with whom I was trying to work through some tough dynamics and at one point I shared something she said that was hurtful and she responded with, “I’m sorry you feel that way”. It made my skin crawl. I was then at a gathering of friends and acquaintances yesterday and in casual conversation someone offered up that same line as a good way to respond to another person in tense moments. Again, my teeth were set on edge. Why is this an acceptable response to potential harms done in interpersonal relationships, or even worse in moments of greater social impact and import (I have a patchy recall of then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger saying something to this effect when challenged on a racial slur he made toward a Latina)? What makes this condescending and dismissive response pass for a response at all when it is clear someone is in the wrong? There is no solution in it, there is no place for deep understanding, in practical terms there is nowhere to go as it effectively stops the conversation, and most importantly there is no healing in it. None. In fact, “I’m sorry you feel that way” subtly places the responsibility on the one who was harmed and not on the “harmer” because it focuses on “feeling hurt” rather than the action / person that caused the harm in the first place. The net result is an opaque (and apparently socially acceptable if the frequency of its usage is any indicator) mechanism by which the affected person gets blamed and the initiator of the action takes no responsibility.


Why am I raising this issue? Ferguson.


There has been a substantial amount of coverage, commentary, and other sorts of input regarding the painful events that have taken place in Ferguson, MO and so I won’t rehash or chime in and add my two cents about the racial dynamics playing out there. I do, however, have one small element I would like to add to the conversation with respect to healing, change and moving forward – the need for an amend.


Amends are different than a vapid “I’m sorry you feel that way” or even a slightly more sincere apology (for example, if officer Wilson or Chief Jackson had shared how truly sorry they were for the incident). These two responses reside in the emotional top soil of the moment and do nothing to address the deep roots that underlie not only the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown, but also the fatal shooting of a knife-wielding man in St Louis days later, the fatal choke hold of the “gentle giant” in New York City last month, and innumerable other examples of People of Color dying at the hands of those in power. Amends, however, hold the potential of getting underneath superficiality and reaching the tap-roots of racial oppression in this country. This is because they are designed not to focus so much on the person harmed but rather on the person who intentionally or unintentionally did the harm. The first cousin to “I’m sorry you feel that way” is the oft repeated phrase from members of dominant groups, “I didn’t mean to hurt you with my (racist, classist, sexist, etc.) remark” with the implication being that if it wasn’t meant, it didn’t hurt. Amends take away the possibility of intention being the arbiter of harms done and focus on the impact, regardless of intentionality. Through the lens of “impact”, of what actually happened, we stand the chance of having more honest dialogue and productive action regarding racial issues in this society. By making amends, the majority White city council of Ferguson, the majority White police department of Ferguson, and to a larger extent the majority White power structures in this country could go a long way in healing this nation’s racial divide by offering a humble willingness to take responsibility for harms done and to set them right in any way possible.


Here’s what that could look like: First, Whites in this country would identify the many ways we have been selfish / self-seeking, dishonest and afraid in our actions toward Communities of Color and Native Communities. For example, we would finally acknowledge the outright theft of Native lands, the true costs and debt yet to be paid for Japanese Internment, the rights due to the Chicano/a community after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and the need for reparations for the institution of slavery. White society (regardless of social class, although social class does mediate the degree) has leveraged racial oppression to consistently and profoundly benefit Whites economically, socially, politically, and psychologically and this selfish utilization of a violent and oppressive system for those ends must be openly and honestly accounted for.


Similarly, White U.S.-ers would speak truth to the countless ways we have distorted history, lied in the public sphere, and intentionally misled this nation into thinking that Whites have earned all the benefits and privileges we have accrued and that our superior status justifies the maintenance of that system of privilege. Race is a lie. White Supremacy is a lie. The Racal Narratives of People of Color and Native Communities are a lie (told in so many ways for so long that they seem real) and the story must be re-written with unflinching honesty. And finally, the ways White society has reacted out of fear and aversion toward Communities of Color and Native Communities must be accounted for and set right.


Second, we would make these face-to-face amends to People of Color and Native Communities. It could sound something like this.


To Native Peoples and People of Color in this society,


I have a pattern of wrongly using people, places and things for my own selfish gain with complete disregard for how that has historically and currently impacted you. I wrongly did this by (fill in the blank here with any number of countless examples of systemic racism over the last 400 years).


I also have a pattern of lying about my actions and instead blaming you for the racial divisions and racial disparities in this society. I have wrongly done this by teaching a distorted history in U.S. P-12 education, presenting biased mainstream media coverage, and by using my power to control the social narrative of race in this country so it consistently favors me and my demands (again, add any other examples of dishonesty).


I also have a pattern of acting out of my own fear and fostering fear in other White people so as to create a false notion of “People of Color are a threat” thereby justifying my creation of systems like the prison industrial complex as a way of “creating safety” in our society and “keeping our streets safe”. Another such example has been the militarization of our local police forces… (again, continue to clearly identify what has happened).


Please know that none of these actions had anything to do with you as I have treated all communities of color in this same, selfish, dishonest and fear-based way. Also please know that I deeply regret my actions and the harm I have caused and am coming to you to own my part in this long and painful experience and do whatever I can to set it right.


Are there any additional harms that I have not mentioned and that you care to tell me about?


How can I set right these wrongs?


Obviously this is not a superficial apology. Importantly, it is also not White Liberal groveling as a result of self-induced guilt or shame. Instead it is freedom. It is the liberation that comes when you stop defending, denying, obfuscating, and manipulating in order to not speak the truth. It is the lightness and wholeness that comes from leaning toward our fellow humans in a desire to heal and feel whole again. It is the gift of honesty coupled with the salve of accountability that opens the door to true and lasting release from the specter of racial oppression that has yoked this country for centuries. And while the body of such an amend could span pages and pages, the make-or-break part is the very last sentence – this is where I place my deepest concern and my greatest hopes for Whites in this country. Can we move past blaming People of Color / Native People, past denial, past fear and distance, and even past White Liberalism to the uncharted terrain of being willing to do whatever it takes to heal? If not yet, what will it take to get us there? If you are White and reading this through the lens of a zero-sum-game, I know for certain that it is not. While making amends would go a long way toward supporting Communities of Color and Native Communities to heal from racism, the process is vital to the healing of White folks as well.


I wish my friend had offered an amend on the phone the other day. Had she done so, she would have found me ready and waiting for her in that middle space of reconciliation. I wish the folks at that social gathering had seen the value of amends. And, each and every time I hear a report from Ferguson, this is what my heart most wants from White people there, in Missouri, in the Midwest and in this country as a whole – an amend. There is no way out but through. There is no way through without healing. There is no healing absent of love. White people making racial amends would humbly and respectfully open a door to authentic dialogue and action with Communities of Color and Native Communities – a door through which there is love for all of us, healing for all of us, and the way out for all of us.

Climate – Change – Mind – Set: Why a Critical Racial Justice Mindset Is Essential for Effective Climate Justice

This is an event sponsored by and the Sierra Club and is for members or affiliates of those organizations. If you would like a similar workshop brought to your area or organization, please contact HCG through the email address.

The purpose of this workshop is to clearly demonstrate how the Global North’s longstanding and oppressive mindset regarding Race, Racism and Whiteness* (RRW) has informed this current climate emergency, and how a change in that mindset is essential for effective climate justice work. More specifically, the workshop helps participants begin to identify and then change those same dynamics so they do not continue to scuttle their ongoing climate justice work. Throughout the day, participants will be asked to analyze their own work, or that of their organization, using a series of assessment and action steps from a critical RRW Climate Justice Framework. To be clear, the core premise of this session is that if we do not fundamentally transform the RRW oppressive mindset of the last 250 years, we are likely to advance solutions that are imbued with these same problematic dynamics that got us here in the first place. As such, utilizing an RRW Climate Justice Framework is vital in our efforts to identify innovative, effective, and long-term climate solutions. This workshop is a mix of lecture / content delivery, participant discussion, and participant application. The work is drawn from over 20 years of teaching and training on social justice content and the last handful of years teaching and training in climate change and climate justice from a social justice framework.

* Note: While it is understood that Class and Gender oppression are deeply implicated in the overall mindset that has led to this climate crisis, this workshop isolates RRW in order to dig deeply into the complexity of these issues.

Close Cousins, But Definitely Not The Same

Recently I have had two conversations in very different settings where people with whom I have done Racial Justice (RJ) work were talking about their overall organization’s decision to move toward Cultural Competency (CC) work now that they have “done” RJ work. Before I go on, I want to say quite clearly that there is great value in true Cultural Competency training, but that it is a mistake to use that as a substitute, or even a pathway to Racial Justice work. What I mean by “true” CC training is one where cross-cultural skills are being presented and developed, rather than some woefully anemic “cultural diversity” or “cultural awareness” conversation. Honest and effective cross-cultural skill development is incredibly necessary in a society that is as culturally diverse as the United States, and even more so in a state like mine, Minnesota, which has historically been fairly monocultural, but which over the last two decades has become ever increasingly culturally diverse. However, to presume that Cultural Competency training is a sufficient substitute or even the equivalent of Racial Justice training is not only incorrect, but in fact feeds White Privilege and allows multigenerational white US-ers an “out” with respect to their own accountability regarding their privilege.

Some of the facilitators I know who make their bank on Cultural Competency training would perhaps be offended by this assessment. But if they are honest they have to acknowledge the two key elements of Cultural Competency work that allow White people the above “out”. First, CC does not sufficiently (if at all, depending on the facilitator) attend to the deep and insidious aspects of structural, institutional power in this society and therefore there is rarely a conversation about the historical and systemic aspects of oppression in the United States. This, then, precludes any possibility of entering into conversation about White privilege, Racism, or even the social construction of Race and its corresponding Racial Narratives. What a relief this is for White participants, and what a vastly different experience they have – none of the discomfort that comes with honestly talking about privilege, no chance of being identified as the “dominant” group who gained their privilege through slavery, genocide, colonization, internment, broken treaties and overall exploitation, and no reason to make systemic changes or amends because there is nothing really to make amends for. The profound absence of a deep analysis of the “system” in Cultural Competency conversations allows the “Wizard” of Whiteness to stay safely behind the curtain, and thus any possibility of identifying the tap roots of centuries of racial oppression (and any chance to change them) are gone. It is for this reason that organizations with which I have conducted RJ work consistently turn to Cultural Competency training precisely when we begin to get more serious about systemic change at the level of White privilege and White Supremacy. It is one of the most consistent means by which White dominant organizations avoid the deepest work regarding Racial Justice and it is unfortunate that more Cultural Competency trainers do not see this and call those organizations on that behavior.

Compounding this dynamic is the fact that even though most multigenerational, White U.S.-er’s families have, at some point, made the trade of “Culture” for “Race” (in this case, for White) and have thereby gained access to all of the corresponding opportunity structures open to Whites in the U.S., in a Cultural Competency training these same White folks can still claim some attachment to their “culture” and thereby assume a parallel position to people and communities for whom the U.S. is not their first nation and standard U.S. dialect is not their first language. This brash form of equalizing in the form of these multigenerational White folks claiming “they have culture too” does not create true cross-cultural awareness, but instead offers white CC participants a profound amount of cover for their Whiteness. For example, while I do not speak German and none of my family holds a British passport anymore, the mere fact that a Cultural Competency training allows me to harken back to those days and use that as a means to equate my family’s experience with Hmong, Somali, or Chicano/a communities in Minnesota derails any attempt to identify me as a privileged person in this state. Again, this is why so many White folks from the U.S. like this conversation – it’s not a matter of power and privilege in most CC trainings, it’s a matter of understanding each other’s “story” or “location in the world” or that “we all have culture” and then finding ways to appreciate that about each other and thus more effectively relate across these cultural lines. Perhaps this would be the optimal approach to solving intense divisions of access and equity in this society except for the pesky fact that Black folks in this country do not get pulled over for “driving while Haitian” or Brown folks for “driving while Peruvian”. No, for both of these racial groups in the U.S. they are pulled over for their Race not their culture. These divisions along racial lines reach to the heart of the “disparities” in our society, not culture. I am not dismissing the critical issues of access regarding some cultural dimensions such as language. But I can say that while living in Western Massachusetts, I never heard New Englanders complain about the English and French on their potato chip bags nearly the way I hear White people complain about English and Spanish on the forms at the DMV. Why the difference? Could it be the ways that cultural issues such as language get heavily racialized in this country and that French is seen quite differently than Spanish because of the Racial Narrative attached to the skin color of the majority of folks who speak each language in North America? Of course it is.

In sum, I want to say again that I am not disparaging good Cultural Competency training because I feel it is a powerful and necessary component of a highly culturally diverse society such as ours here in the U.S. What I am asserting is my frustration with White dominant organizations who “prefer” Cultural Competency work to Racial Justice work, or who switch to CC training just as we’re getting down to the real deal with Whiteness in our RJ work, because it provides cover for their Whiteness and ultimately does not demand that they change anything about the core of their practices, policies or procedures. It is my hope that organizational leaders will see the dangers of this and choose to stay the course with Racial Justice work, and even more so that Cultural Competency trainers will take the time to find out if they and their work are being used as a means to not lean into RJ work and perhaps approach those organizations quite differently.

Reflections On The WPC 15

The White Privilege Conference (WPC) is such an incredible experience that I want to first thank Dr. Eddie Moore Jr. and the national team for their tireless work and commitment to the vision of this conference and the rare and beautiful space that it is. This year was the largest gathering in the WPC’s history with over 2400 people converging on Madison, WI for several days of deep thought, hard work, laughter and good juju, and a shared goal of ending systems of racial oppression. As per usual, the keynotes were excellent, the workshop offerings superb, and the overall climate of the conference was one of connection and collaboration. Certainly there were times and places where tension arose, in fact I would be suspicious of the veracity of peoples’ commitment if it did not, but it was consistently handled with astonishing aplomb and often ended up being a learning experience for everyone involved.

And yet, on the last day I was wondering what the real take-away of the conference was for folks. What draws so many people to such a challenging conference and then stays with them as they leave? In conversation with some connections here in the Twin Cities it seems to be a range of things that take people to the WPC. What surprised me, however, was that the most pronounced reason was not the expected “an end to systems of racial oppression” but rather the possibility for deep and necessary healing. The WPC is a very emotional experience for almost everyone because it’s not only “present-time” pain that comes through in the tough moments, it is also what feels like (and is) the pain of generations, the story of lives long passed, the cellular memory of trauma never released, and the hold this all still has on our hearts and minds. I think that’s what makes the caucuses so fraught, some of the workshops so intense, and the keynotes so jarring and moving – the reality that as we sat in Madison listening to speakers, there were not just 2400 people in the room, but rather there were 2400 lineages in the room with varying degrees of relationship to the U.S. system of racial oppression. This year and in years past this dynamic has been palpable in some very intense moments. For example, a few years ago keynoter Dr. Joy DeGruy presented her work on Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome and there were times when it felt like the entire room was holding its breath lest the whole world crack open from the pain. This year, the opening keynote, Jackie Battalora, gave an extremely clear framing of the creation of “white” and the insidious ways it (and other racial categories) were shaped and reshaped throughout early U.S. history, always in the service of the White dominant racial structure and its perpetuation of Racism, White Privilege and White Supremacy. As she talked, you could literally feel the energy in the room shift – it was as if the curtain had been pulled back just a little more on The Wizard thus exposing more clearly his source of “power”. Understanding what that shift was is important because it wasn’t a reaction to “present-time” Racism or Whiteness, but rather a deeper, multi-generational understanding of the history and systems that have gotten us here. Some in the room felt despair at how intractable, powerful and unstoppable this system seems due to the way it has been so speciously constructed and then violently enforced and reinforced. Conversely, others felt a slight lift because it exposed the system for what it is, a complete facsimile and a toxic element of this society. Whatever the response, it was a generational one from a place of deep knowing and recognition. It exposed Whiteness as a system that is not “natural” or “just the way it has always been”, but rather one with a name, a history, and whose foundation is built on lies. The room knew this and thus Jackie’s presentation was really just helping us to remember that this is a lie, it is not “natural” or how we are meant to be, and that this can change. And that’s the healing, right? The release of the story and its hold on us, and the coming back to our true selves as connected, collective beings rooted in love (hooks), wired for empathy (Rifkin), and ready to mend and befriend (Neff).

The reality of the historical trauma of racial oppression was not new content to most people at this conference, but simply knowing about this history versus really feeling its impact and knowing how to heal it are two vastly different things. And I think the possibility of bridging that divide is what keeps so many people coming back to this conference year after year. It is a place that at least acknowledges that healing needs to happen, that it is possible, and that it will take all of us coming together in new and connected ways to make it happen. That’s what makes the WPC so different than NCORE, for example, with its academic framing of racial issues, or NAME where there is not enough critical examination of Race, Racism and Whiteness to even get to a conversation about generational trauma and racial oppression in meaningful ways. As such, I am grateful once again to the founder, Dr. Moore, the national team, the local team, and each and every participant for making the WPC 15 an experience of movement, both inside and out. I encourage everyone to peruse the WPC web site and put the dates for next year’s conference on your calendar now as we continue to support this deeply important experience and the learning community that grows out of it.

“The Body Does Not Lie: Using the Body’s Own Knowledge (Truth-telling) to Understand the Impacts of Racial Oppression and to Chart A Pathway Toward Racial Liberation” – Dr. Heather Hackman

This workshop is born out of my racial justice work in two main areas: first, trauma and the truth the body teaches us about the impacts of race, racism and whiteness in our lives; and second, the “liberatory biology of the human cell” and how its characteristics, if utilized in our daily lives, create spaces where racism and whiteness simply cannot survive. Both strands of knowledge center around the notion that “the body does not lie”, and just as the body indicates the ways racism and whiteness are held as trauma, it also very clearly indicates the pathway out of this mess. As such, this workshop helps participants understand the racial justice truth-telling of the body and provides tools for them to regularly address both the trauma of racial oppression and the liberation of the human cell in their daily work. Because of the advanced nature of this workshop’s content, it is not for those who are new to race, racism and whiteness content and instead is best suited for those who already have a solid foundation in this and are ready to be pushed. Participants are expected to engage fully, attend BOTH portions of the workshop.

Addressing Shame As White Racial Justice Advocates

A couple of weeks ago I read Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly (2012 Gotham Books) and while there are several valuable points to be found in her work on shame, vulnerability, and resilience, there was one set of ideas in the book that had significant resonance with what I watch white people struggle with when addressing their internal responses to issues of race, racism and whiteness. But before I expound on them I want to be very clear that I am merely adding my own thoughts onto Dr. Brown’s work and I want to give full attribution to her, her research, and the voice she brings to an important and complicated conversation about shame, vulnerability, and resilience. As such, I ask that you honor the copyright agreements for these blog postings so that her work does not somehow get lost in any re-postings.


In my experience the resistance white people tend to put up around addressing issues of race, racism and whiteness is described variously as white peoples’ fear, guilt, shame, the preservation of their privilege, a manifestation of white entitlement, conflict avoidance, or simply ignorance. And while guilt and shame do often get mentioned, the conversation is more likely to be about the ways that white people “feel so bad” about what has happened to people of color, and as a corollary, how white people feel attacked or blamed by people of color for the current racial reality in the US. In her book, however, Dr. Brown differentiates guilt from shame and identifies the deep, corrosive nature of shame as opposed to guilt: guilt is “I feel bad for what I did”, shame could be described as “I feel bad for who I am”. And, in the case of white people’s resistance to race, racism and whiteness content, while both guilt and shame are operating, it is the latter dynamic which feeds the most substantial resistance. In her research Dr. Brown has identified many of the overt and covert facets of shame and how it immobilizes people, disconnects us from others and ourselves, and makes it nearly impossible to be open-minded let alone open-hearted…all conditions that freeze white people, stop racial equity from happening in their midst, and ultimately keep systems of racial oppression in place.


Her intent, however, is not merely to explicate the ways shame trips all of us up in our lives, it is to offer a countervailing idea she describes as “shame resilience”. Now, remembering that she is not specifically addressing social justice issues (and certainly not racial justice issues), here is what she says about shame resilience. I encourage you to make your own connections to racial justice work and the ways white folks can work through the trap of shame. “…I want to explain what I mean by shame resilience. I mean the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, connection than we had going into it. Shame resilience is about moving from shame to empathy – the real antidote to shame” (p.74).


Again, though Dr. Brown is not specifically applying this content to social justice issues, it should be clear to anyone that this definition, and the disposition toward racial equity work that would arise out of it, are powerful elements in creating a racially just society. In this frame of mind, the privilege and benefits whites get at the expense of people of color is obviously anathema to achieving our fullest humanity. White privilege then becomes something not worth defending if its price is endless shame and our inability to connect to other human beings in empathy, compassion and care.


After defining shame resilience, she goes on to say that, “A social wound needs a social balm, and empathy is that balm…to get to empathy, we have to first know what we’re dealing with. Here are the four elements of shame resilience – the steps don’t always happen in this order, but they always ultimately lead us to empathy and healing” (p.75).

1. Recognizing shame and understanding its triggers

2. Practicing critical awareness

3. Reaching out

4. Speaking shame


In the pages that follow she goes into great detail regarding the application of these four elements in a person’s life. Here I want to tweek them a bit and talk about their utility in helping white people move through places of “stuckness” around their white privilege and racism in the service of racial justice and healing.


Recognizing (white) shame and understanding its triggers

There is a solid body of research looking at “triggers” as a general category of patterned response born out of our socialization. More specifically, however, there are some very general ways that white people in the US tend to get triggered around racial issues. Here are four (among many) that I encounter when doing racial justice training and education:

– Feeling attacked and blamed

– Feeling ignorant and unsure of what is true and not true

– Feeling scared to act for fear of making a mistake

– Feeling afraid that life will change in ways that they simply do not understand and might not like


In any of these moments white folks in my trainings will respond with varying degrees of defensiveness and anger. If this is something you have witnessed in yourself as a white person or seen white people do, it would be useful to stop and breathe and then ask some questions about what might be triggering you / them in that moment. Remembering that Dr. Brown suggests that empathy is the balm, this questioning should not reinforce shame through its tone or expected outcome. Rather an open-hearted inquiry is sometimes all it takes to get to deeper levels of honesty and a more responsive and reflective conversation.


Practicing critical awareness (regarding whiteness)

Dr. Brown suggests that this tool is about reality-checking the messages that are driving one’s shame. This is hard for white folks with respect to racial equity issues because we have been so badly and inaccurately educated about race, racism and whiteness in the US that we often do not have a place from which to differentiate true from false as we begin to learn more about these issues. One of the tools I offer in trainings is the notion of “critical thinking” and I have distilled that complex notion into three accessible ideas as a starting point for folks. In short, practicing critical awareness via critical thinking involves: 1) examining issues from multiple, non-dominant perspectives, 2) asking questions about resources, access, and power, and 3) asking myself how do I know what I think I know; have I been given all of the facts or do I just “think” I have?


Using these three questions when practicing critical awareness around white shame can help me as a white person to realize that a) I was, in fact, badly educated (which is not my fault), b) that I had never thought about access issues in relation to race before (again, how could I have if it was never modeled for me), and c) that I’m not really sure “where” I got all of my ideas about race from (and so perhaps they are not actually accurate or true). As you can see these questions afford me a little distance as a white person, which is quite helpful when looking at my part in racial issues in this society. As Peggy McIntosh says in the video Cracking the Codes, (I’m paraphrasing) “white people were born into a system they do not understand and were socialized to go along with; it’s not their fault, and they should not feel guilty but instead get busy.”


Reaching out (to other white RJ allies)

White privilege, and the ignorance, disconnection, fear and pain that support it, thrives in isolation. In fact, I imagine all dynamics that corrode connection and community thrive in isolation. As such, reaching out to other white people to ask questions, share concerns, and learn how to grow and work through racial justice issues is paramount. A caveat here is that the white person I reach to should be someone who is committed to racial justice issues, understands that shame is a horrible trap for white people, and who has a bit more knowledge than I. Without these elements, one is likely to stay stuck, or even exacerbate the shame of whiteness. Again, this is about connecting and being human and vulnerable with each other as we try to bring on line the elements of our values, hopes and dreams that have been silenced by systems of racial oppression and the impact they have had on our connections as white people.


Speaking shame (about being white)

When white people get caught in a shame spiral you can literally see them “leaving” the workshop. All of the defense mechanisms come up, their eyes close off a bit, their energy gets hard, and their faces steel somewhat. But, when I have watched white people name the shame, open up on a deeper level, the talons of fear do not seem to grip them and they can stay present (at least somewhat, anyway) in the training and basically “hang in there” with their discomfort. What it tends to do for people of color in the room, when the naming is done honestly, is make the training feel a little more authentic as a process and therefore a little safer to stay in the conversation. Importantly, this process of speaking the shame is not about white people becoming the victim of racial oppression through testimonials of how hard it is to be white at the exclusion of the pain people of color feel. Instead, there is a bit of distance here, relief against the sky if you will, where white people can see the shame arise, know that it is an impediment, and share about it from a desire to address the impediment rather than feeding the notion of how hard it is to be white. It may seem like I am splitting hairs here, but the distinction matters because it shapes the contours of the conversation and determines the level of wisdom, compassion and authenticity being brought to the table.


To be sure there are no “magic bullets” when it comes to addressing the barrier of shame felt by white people with respect to racial equity work. But, Dr. Brown’s shame resilience framework, when applied to racial equity work, can perhaps provide white folks some tools to get through those moments, stay connected to others in the room, and ultimately stay grounded enough to keep working toward racial justice in our lives, in our communities, and in this society as a whole.

SCOTUS, What Have You Done?

There has already been so much said about this in progressive circles that this will be brief. Nevertheless, it feels important to add another voice to the overall commentary about the two Supreme Court decisions of last week. Heartbreaking is the word that comes to mind as I ponder the inevitable racist consequences for people of color in this country as a result of the ruling on the Voting Rights Act. Infuriating, inconceivable, and outrageous are a few other words that come to mind. Justice Ginsberg, in her dissent, aptly noted that just because someone is not getting wet, does not mean you take away the umbrella that has for 48 years attempted to keep them dry. If the Supreme Court believes that “things have changed in this country” they only need to look at the immediate and substantial legislative and executive branch responses from the states previously covered under the Voting Rights Act. The pernicious nature of the disenfranchisement of people of color in this country is obvious to anyone thoughtful enough to read history and then watch the six major news networks…the comparison between the “then” and now is shocking – not much (if anything) has changed. For example, the Texas redistricting measures that were clearly identified as intentionally biased in favor of whites prior to the Court’s ruling, are now able to proceed and the further gerrymandering of votes away from communities of color and toward white state and federal legislators will continue. How the Court does not see this might well reflect the depth and breadth of the impact of whiteness on their minds and how it has limited their ability to see past the pseudo-post-racial US propaganda and instead recognize that racism and white privilege are alive and well in these United States. There is no question that this was a blow to communities of color in this country and as such it is critical that we not let it go unchallenged: a) step up the dialogue with those in our lives about the realities for people of color in the US and the extent of disenfranchisement still in place, b) redouble our efforts to get fair and equal access to the vote in all 50 states (pressure our leaders), and c) do every single thing we can to get folks to the polls in 2014 and 2016.


But the Court did not stop there, and this is the crux of why I’m writing this blog, the very next day they handed down a ruling that essentially invalidated DOMA and Prop 8 in California. Thus in the sweep of 24 hours people of color lost considerable (and perhaps the only) protections against one of the most basic and sacred rights in a democracy while LBGTQI folks gained access to one of the most powerful state-sanctioned institutions and all of the economic, social, and political benefits that arise from it. It was an incredible moment for LBGTQI people all over this country for as Justice Scalia prophesied (in his dissent) this set of rulings will most likely pave the way for LBGTQI folks throughout the US to have fair and equal access to the benefits of federally recognized marriage.


And yet, it was a bittersweet victory due to the ruling the day before. What I would have loved to have seen amidst the endless media coverage and interviews of white LBGTQI people was both a cheer for the equality of LBGTQI people and a stronger statement regarding the loss of rights for people of color. No one is free when others are oppressed. It is not lost on anyone that the plaintiffs regarding DOMA and Prop 8 were white people. And, it is also not lost on anyone that the primary beneficiaries of the legalizing of LBGTQI marriage are white people. Certainly there are ways that LBGTQI communities of color are served by this ruling and I’m not dismissing that, but overwhelmingly across the country the securing of LBGTQI marriage rights has largely been politicized, presented, and organized by and for white people.


I am going to assume that the court did not intend to create a dynamic where one group lost civil rights while another gained them the very next day, and yet intent matters little when the effects are so potentially polarizing. It would be all too easy for the dominant power structure to insidiously use these rulings as bait and fodder for division and derision among LBGTQI folks and folks of color (understanding that the dominant power structure does not even acknowledge people of color who are LBGTQI), and that simply cannot happen. The mainstream LBGTQI community in the US has fallen short countless times around issues of racial justice, as have various mainstream communities of color around LBGQI rights. Let us use this moment as a means to remember this history, see its poisonous implications for future organizing, and make a different choice. Thus, to the LBGTQI political, non-profit, community and educational leaders across the country, who also are often majority white, I implore you to acknowledge the travesty that happened to the Voting Rights Act and take a strong and immediate stand against the racism and white privilege that fuels rulings such as this and the overall disenfranchisement of people of color across the country. And to mainstream leaders of color across the country, I ask you to celebrate the Court’s ruling on DOMA and Prop 8 and honor it as one more step to full equality for LBGTQI folks throughout the country. Let us all remember that we crave justice and equality not for ourselves only, for that diminishes the very heart and corrodes the very spirit of “justice” and “equality”, but for the greater good and in the service of a society where all humans are free and equal and safe.


In closing, I am indeed celebrating one more step toward equality for LBGTQI people in this country and simultaneously beseech all of us who care about racial justice to use the momentum of this victory to not only fuel continued LBGTQI civil rights work, but also to fuel racial justice work and insure that the rights, safety and security of people of color in this country are achieved and secured for this and future generations.


Racial Justice Work: A Spiritual Imperative

Over the course of the last few years, I have had the privilege of working with various communities of faith on racial equity issues and I usually title the training “Racial Justice: A Spiritual Imperative”. I do this for two reasons: First, the word “imperative” tends to stimulate curiosity among congregants and draws them to the training. And second, it is true. I explain it this way – in Karen Armstrong’s recent publication, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, she states that every major world religion or system of faith has at its core love, compassion, and service to others. Importantly, the centrality of these issues is not limited to the monotheisms, or to the Eastern religions, but is evident in a wide range of examples within various systems of faith. Even “spiritual” (but patently not religious) organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous have love and service at their core.


And so, if love, compassion and service are at the heart of many of the world’s systems of faith, then it stands to reason that the mere existence of something so hateful, so inhuman, and so toxic as racial oppression (or any form of oppression for that matter) is an affront, or even an impediment, to one actualizing their chosen spirituality. Conversely, and this is something that most congregants intuit, it is logical to presume that engaging in racial equity work draws one closer to the core principles of their faith or spiritual path. Putting all of this together, it does not seem too much of a stretch to assert that racial justice work is imperative to the lived experience of many of the world’s faith systems. And this is exactly the approach I take when training communities of faith on these issues, especially communities of faith that are predominantly white: I help congregants understand the ways racial oppression undermines their faith, and in turn how racial justice work feeds and strengthens it.


Once understood, many congregants are eager to get started and “jump right in”. However, there are two very important issues to be mindful of before a community of faith undertakes racial equity work. The first is the occasional notion in predominantly white congregations that, while this work is part of their spiritual path, they are really only engaged in it to help people of color – a paternalizing (sic) attitude that does more harm than good. In fact, when congregants understand that racial oppression is based on both the way systems of racism target communities of color and how systems of white privilege benefit white people, the white members realize that they are part and parcel to this system and begin to engage in it more honestly and effectively. As such, much of the work these predominantly white congregations need to do when embracing racial equity work as a spiritual imperative involves addressing both racism that targets people of color and an examination of their white privilege.


A second caution for predominantly white congregations when doing racial equity work as a spiritual imperative is that many in the U.S. (and perhaps other Western societies) tend to individualize systems of faith or religious philosophy, often with the result of distancing themselves from the suffering of their fellows. This results in a predominantly white congregation’s racial equity work having the feel of charity instead of real equity, thereby maintaining a certain privileged distance while trying to address racism. The solution is to reach deeply toward our common humanity and remember that there really is no separation between us – whether it be “whatsoever you do unto your fellows you do to me”, or the teachings of karma, or the notion of tikkun olam, or the pillar of hospitality, the base principles of many of the world’s systems of faith do not actually allow one to extricate themselves from their community of fellows. Thus, racial equity work is not about “charity” work for others, but personal work that deeply connects us to each other and to our essential humanity.


In the many trainings I have done for communities of faith, it has been deep and abiding faith that draws many predominantly white congregations to this work and buoys them as they do it – even though it can sometimes be intimidating, confusing or frightening. I witnessed this a few months ago while working with a group of Catholic teachers – the racial equity content was clearly challenging for this predominantly white group of teachers, but when I asked them to identify ways their Catholicism buttressed their racial equity work, it became immediately evident in their body language and what they shared that their faith was a source of courage and motivation to continue to lean in and learn about racism and white privilege. Let this be an example to all communities of faith engaging in racial justice work: this is not charity work, this is not only about supporting communities of color, it is about ending the dehumanizing impact of racism and white privilege on all of us so that who we aspire to be as people of faith lines up with who we actually are on a daily basis.

© 2013 Hackman Consulting Group – Do not reproduce part or all without permission.